Workshop #2: Query Letter Critiques

2550243063_35b750a523_oWelcome to the second week of Novel Boot Camp! This week we’ll continue with homework assignments designed to improve your novels. We will also be moving on to our second workshop.

If your first page has not yet been critiqued in the first workshop, don’t panic. I may continue to post them this week or I may wait until next week. It depends on how many query letters are submitted and how long it takes me to get through them. Please be patient. Thank you! Continue reading

“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 5

ca_20150131_026When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about twenty novel openings written by Novel Boot Camp participants.

I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.

Please play along by tracking which books you would want to read more of. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

To submit your own novel opening, click here.

Volume 1 can be found here.

Volume 2 can be found here.

Volume 3 can be found here.

Volume 4 can be found here.

Continue reading

Novel Boot Camp #4: Creating Conflicts

14582613060_bdf9bf5018_oConflicts seem pretty straightforward. As people, we encounter conflicts all the time so we feel like we’re pretty much experts on the topic. But often aspiring writers do not think about conflict in the right way.

If you aren’t defining conflict accurately, your novel is going to lack tension, suspense, and structure.

So what is the real definition of conflict?

Continue reading

“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 4

ca_20150131_026When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten novel openings written by Novel Boot Camp participants.

I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.

Please play along by tracking which books you would want to read more of. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

To submit your own novel opening, click here.

Volume 1 can be found here.

Volume 2 can be found here.

Volume 3 can be found here.

Continue reading

“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 3

ca_20150131_026

**An incorrect version of this post was up for a few minutes earlier this morning. My blog’s scheduling system is posting things at the wrong time. My apologies!**

When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten novel openings written by Novel Boot Camp participants.

I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.

Please play along by tracking which books you would want to read more of. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

To submit your own novel opening, click here.

Volume 1 can be found here.

Volume 2 can be found here.

Continue reading

Novel Boot Camp #2: Creating Deep Realistic Characters

3029426027_b758fb28fdOne of the most common complaints I hear from writers is, “I don’t know how to make my characters seem realistic!” *cue sad music*

These writers have often tried a variety of character development methods. They might have worksheets and spreadsheets and character interviews. They might know their character’s favorite color, most attractive feature, and every moment of their childhood in chronological order. But none of these things create a realistic character.

You might be gasping in terror because you are certain that your character development exercises have helped you, and they probably have. There’s nothing wrong with that type of character development.

The problem arises when personality replaces depth.

Now everybody knows that characters have to be deep. But many writers don’t know what this actually means (even when they think they do). After all, depth is a pretty intangible concept, right?

Actually, it’s not! Which is great news for writers. There are actually four tiers of depth, which you can apply to your character right now. Sound exciting? Let’s get started!

Tier One: The Goal

The goal is usually the easiest part of the four tiers. The goal is the thing your character wants. It may be deep or superficial, but it is always tangible. This means it must be possible for the reader to clearly identify when the goal has been achieved.

If the goal is too broad or abstract, the character might feel as if she’s running around in circles for no particular reason. This is a problem that will cause the reader to constantly ask why your character is doing what they’re doing.

The key to making your character’s goal work in your novel, is that the character must be actively pursuing the goal.

For the sake of clarity, let’s follow a character through the four tiers. This character is named Lisa and her goal is to get into a great college. Note how getting into college is a tangible goal. The reader will definitely know whether or not the goal is achieved in the end.

We will come back to Lisa later, but for now let’s move on to Tier Two.

Tier Two: Motivation

While your character might be motivated to eat a sandwich, go to work, or make their bed in the morning, nobody is going to read a book about your character jumping from superficial motivation to superficial motivation. When we talk about motivation within a novel, we are talking about something much bigger, much deeper, and much harder to convey.

Motivation is your character’s desire to achieve a specific emotional state. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone did this in the most “on the nose” way possible with the Mirror of Erised. Harry looks in the mirror and he sees himself with his parents, happy and loved. While Harry never gets his parents back, and your character probably won’t get his or her best case scenario either, we can still see that the state Harry wanted to achieve was one of being loved, accepted, and happy.

If your character looked in the mirror of Erised, what would he or she see?

The answer to this question is not just a component of your novel, it’s the backbone of the entire story. It is what gets your character to put one foot in front of the other and move towards their goal.

If you don’t get motivation right (or if you keep motivation at a level that is too superficial) your character will never ring true.

Let’s take a deeper look at motivation.

Motivation Exists Before the Story Starts

This is a very important part of motivation and I would guess that it is the piece of the puzzle most likely to be missed by aspiring writers. Your character’s motivation must exist before the start of the story.

Harry didn’t suddenly realize he wants to be loved once he got to Hogwarts. He wanted to be loved before his adventure even started. In fact, we can trace those hurt feelings and that sense of isolation all the way back to his infancy.

Motivation and Goals Are Not the Same Thing

The worst mistake a writer can make when thinking about motivation is assuming that goals and motivation are the same thing. They are not.

A goal is something the character wants for emotional reasons.

Motivation is the emotional reason the character wants to achieve that goal.

If you make the mistake of equating goals with motivation, your novel will not hold together. It is impossible to sustain interesting and meaningful conflict across a novel length work with goals alone. Most goals are just too easy to achieve.

A good sign that your novel lacks motivation is if you find you are having to search your brain for obstacles to throw in your character’s path in order to make the story take long enough to fill a novel. Replacing your character’s motivation with simple goals creates major structural problems in a novel (I’m going to talk more about structuring around characterization later).

Now, let’s revisit Lisa, whose goal is to get into college. A writer would have a really hard time sustaining interesting conflict across an entire novel with this goal alone. There simply isn’t enough “juice” in that goal to keep things going. Even though Lisa’s goal isn’t shallow, it’s still not deep enough.

So what is Lisa’s motivation? Lisa wants to go to college because she wants the acceptance and security that comes with being wealthy and having a good job.

When you focus on motivation, not goal, you open yourself up to a lot more possibilities for conflict. For example, if Lisa is motivated by the security and acceptance of wealth, she might also date a man simply because he’s wealthy, she might become suicidal when she fails a class (because now she will be stuck in poverty forever), and she might struggle in her relationships with her family because she believes they could get out of poverty if they tried hard enough.

This character is suddenly starting to feel very real and complex isn’t she? Well, we’re not done yet!

Tier three: The Deep Dark Belief

Motivations are much deeper and more meaningful than goals, but there’s actually something even deeper than motivation, and that is your character’s deep dark belief.

Your character’s motivation is caused by a particular belief he has about himself, others, or the world around him. This is his deep dark belief. 

Let’s look at our example above. We know that Lisa wants to go to college (goal) because she wants the security and acceptance that comes with wealth (motivation).  But why is Lisa so afraid of poverty? What is her deep dark belief?

Well, Lisa believes that people who live in poverty cannot be accepted by society and aren’t as valuable as those with wealth.

Now let’s travel even deeper into Lisa’s brain…

Tier Four: The Origin of the Deep Dark Belief

The origin of the belief is a profound event in the character’s life that led them to develop a particular belief about the world.

4835746606_04946f813bThis event is usually traumatic in nature and preys on our deepest human fears: abandonment, physical harm, ridicule, rejection, etc.

So let’s explore the origin of Lisa’s belief. When Lisa was in grade school, her mother abandoned her to marry a rich man. This led Lisa to believe that rich people are more secure and valuable (her deep dark belief), which led her to want to be rich so she can experience that security and value (her motivation), which led her to want desperately to get into a good college (her goal).

So let’s recap.

The Four Tiers of Character Depth

In order to write a compelling and realistic character, you must include these four tiers of depth:

1. The Goal: This is the superficial achievement the character is shooting for.
2. The Motivation: This is the emotional reason the character wants to achieve that goal.
3. The Deep Dark Belief: This is the belief that leads the character to the motivation.
4. The Origin of the Belief: This is the event(s) that caused the character to develop their belief.

If you can provide your character with all four tiers of depth, you will almost certainly have a character that rings true for readers, and you will be well on your way to crafting a strong novel.

Homework

For your homework assignment, work on discovering the four tiers of depth in your main character. You might also want to do this for significant side characters. Here are questions to help keep you on track. These questions can be answered in any order. These four pieces need to work together, so start with what you know and build from there.

I am including sample answers to help you better understand the questions.

1. What tangible goal does your character want to achieve?

Tim wants to visit his father’s home town to meet his father’s surviving relatives.

2. What emotion/feeling motivates your character to achieve this goal?

He is motivated by a deep sense that he doesn’t belong anywhere.

3. Why does your character think this goal will satisfy their motivation?

Meeting his father’s family will give him a sense that he belongs because they are his flesh and blood.

4. What belief is underlying the emotional motivation of the character?

He believes he can never truly belong anywhere within his adoptive family and that his own flesh and blood are the only people that will truly accept him.

5. What experience/event is underlying the character’s belief?

He was treated poorly by his adoptive father who viewed him as a lesser member of the family due to being adopted.

6. Put together what you’ve written into a single cohesive sentence.

Due to being treated like an outcast by his adoptive father, Tom believes the only way he can ever really belong is by going to his biological father’s hometown to meet and connect with his own flesh and blood.

This sounds curiously like the beginning of a query letter, does it not? *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*

In Summary

Creating these four tiers of depth is often the hardest part of the writing process, especially if you developed the plot before developing the character. If this is you, you’re now faced with the task of making the characterization fit the plot, which can be time consuming and tricky.

If you struggle with this exercise, don’t give up! Once all the pieces click into place, you’ll be rewarded with a strong, cohesive novel.

14779520072_914171dbb7_oDiscussion Question (please discuss in the comment section below):

Which tier do you find most difficult to develop?

This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you don’t know what that is, click here.

“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 2

ca_20150131_026When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten novel openings written by Novel Boot Camp participants.

I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.

Please play along by tracking which books you would want to read more of. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

To submit your own novel opening, click here.

Volume 1 can be found here.

Continue reading

Novel Boot Camp #1: How to be Creative

3102056181_9e50852f2d_oAlmost as soon as I sat down to start planning Boot Camp this year, I knew I wanted to tackle the topic of creativity.

There is this aura of mystique surrounding the creative process. When we think of artists of all types, we imagine them sitting down with their drink of choice and magically producing something whole and stunning and perfect in a frantic burst of inspiration.

This concept of creativity is a myth.

Sure, bursts of inspiration happen and creative epiphanies are real, but not all ideas are good ideas, most first ideas suck, and bursts of inspiration might not happen for weeks or months or even years at a time. When that burst does happen, it almost never carries an artist through more than a small fraction of the creative process.

After working with hundreds of writers, the biggest message I’ve learned about creativity is this:

You don’t need inspiration to be creative.

How you feel when on a creative high.

How you feel when you’re on a creative high.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that the electric burst of excited inspiration we’ve all grown to love is often detrimental to the creative process. Instead of getting to work, we wait around for that “creative high” we love so much.

This myth of creative inspiration, of getting it right the first time, of putting pen to paper and developing a masterpiece without utilizing a plan, making a mistake, or hitting a roadblock is not just mythical, it’s damaging. It sends one of two messages to aspiring writers:

  1. I can’t do this because I don’t have creative inspiration.
  2. I can do this because I have creative inspiration.

Neither of these messages are true. Both messages limit writers by encouraging the belief that when you just get your magical amazing burst of inspiration, all the pieces will fall into place.

Well, they won’t.

The truth is that a novel is a complicated beast. What seemed so awesome and brilliant during your creative high might actually not be right for this novel at all. Or it might be absolutely brilliant, but it only actually covers 2% of the plot, leaving you with a ton of hard work left on your plate.

Once you lose that creative momentum, you can’t just stop and wait for it to return. A writer might only experience one or two of these creative highs over the entire course of writing a novel, but the ones who succeed keep on banging out the words.

So what can you do?

The first step is to accept that your creativity is entirely within your control. No inspiration required. No magic. All you need to do is get your butt to your chair and your hands to the keyboard.

How you feel when you're on a creative low.

How you feel when you’re on a creative low.

Your creative skill is always inside you. It’s not just there during bursts of inspiration when you’re in love with your novel and know for certain it’s going to be an international bestseller with multi-million dollar movie rights. It’s there even when you’re in the bowels of writing hell and hate your novel more than you ever thought possible.

Don’t fall into the trap that you must “feel creative” to be creative.

You might feel like watching a movie tonight, or maybe you don’t. If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means it’s not what you’re in the mood to do. If you wait around for the right mood to write, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

As Stephen King once said:

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

Don’t fear that if you aren’t feeling creative or inspired, you can’t do your best work. The truth is that inspired ideas are no more valid than ones born of logical and deliberate problem solving. Once tucked neatly into the novel, the reader will have no idea whether your idea was born of inspiration or of logic.

So how can you logic your way through creativity?

Homework

This is a technique I call the “Maybe Game.” It frees up your mind to explore options for your novel without the terror of commitment, without thinking too hard about how it fits into what you’ve already written (or plan to write), and most importantly without the need for creativity.

To play the game, all you need to do is clearly identify an area of your novel that you know is not working. This could be an area that needs more development, such as a character that needs a motivation, a supernatural event that needs an explanation, or superpowers that need rules for how they work.

This game also works when you’ve got a gap in your plot, meaning that you know the character needs to get from A to C, but you have no point B.

Once you’ve identified an area of your novel that needs development or a gap in your plot that needs filling, write it down in the form of a question:

What are the restrictions on Jamie’s super powers?
Why didn’t Alex know about his brother’s adoption?
How come Eliza can speak on stage in the first chapter but has stage fright in the third?
What happens between Amy finding the magic bear and Amy being captured by mummies?

Putting the question into words makes it tangible. It’s no longer a blob of creativity in the back of your mind, it’s a logic problem sitting before you begging to be solved.

Once you have the question down, start writing some “maybe” statements. I find that prefacing the statements with “maybe” frees you up to let your imagination run wild without fear of commitment.

Let’s look at the first question together: What are the restrictions on Jamie’s super powers?

The writer’s “maybe” statements might look something like this:

Maybe Jamie can only use his power when he’s holding the magic stone. Or maybe Jamie needs to fill up a reservoir before the power is available to him again and he fills it with good deeds. Or maybe he fills it with souls that he steals from animals. Or maybe he can use it whenever he wants, but it makes him a little bit sicker every time he does.

Let’s look at the last question as well: What happens between Amy finding the magic bear and Amy being captured by mummies?

The writer’s answers might look something like this:

Maybe when she finds the bear it triggers a trapdoor and the mummies burst out of the tomb. Or maybe facing the bear gives her the confidence she needs to wander into a secret chamber where the mummies are located.

Don’t worry about how good the ideas are, just write down all the ideas you have. You may very well find that you come to a conclusion within a couple sentences. A light bulb will go off in your head, and you’ll shout with glee, “Perfect!” But it’s possible that you will need to put all of the possibilities away and come back later to get more perspective on what fits best into the novel.

Keep going until you run out of possibilities or find an answer that you like. If you have more problems in your novel, rinse and repeat as needed.

Homework: Play the Maybe Game on at least one problem you’re having with your novel.

Writers are often looking for this authentic sense of creativity that comes naturally and without effort, but that’s not what writing is all about. If you wait around for inspiration, you will never get anywhere. So jump into the problems of your novel and face them head-on.

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Discussion Question (please discuss in the comment section below):

What is the hardest part of your creative process?

This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you don’t know what that is, click here.

“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 1

ca_20150131_026When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten novel openings written by Novel Boot Camp participants.

I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.

Please play along by tracking which books you would want to read more of. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

To submit your own novel opening, click here. Continue reading